The Trans-Siberian Railway: A Trip of a Lifetime! ๐Ÿ‡ท๐Ÿ‡บ

It’s a trip of a lifetime

The Trans-Siberian train trip is a journey I dreamed of for so many years. After months of careful planning, I was finally able to make this dream come true. In September 2018, I started this epic train trip from Moscow all the way to Irkutsk in the Middle of Siberia. During this trip, I made stops in Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and lake Baikal.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is a network of railways connecting Moscow with the Russian far East. With a length of 9,289 Kilometres from Moscow to Vladivostok, it is the longest railway line in the world. The trip across Siberia is a unique experience, it is not like any other train trip in the world and that’s not only because of the distance. Rather, it’s about the unique rituals and traditions of this train ride which you will never experience elsewhere.

In this blog, I will share with you the details of my trip in addition to my personal impressions and some tips and recommendations . I believe it will be my longest blog as there is an incredible amount of information to share about this epic train ride.

The Trans-Siberian train makes a stop in Omsk

Planning for the trip

I recommend that you plan for your trip ahead of time. First of all, you will need a visa to Russia if you are a European or North American. Therefore, you need to prepare for your visa application in advance. You need to get your train tickets, and you need to decide which cities you want to visit along the way and what to pack for the train.

Trans-Siberian Railway map

You have the freedom to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway either Eastbound or Westbound. Most of travellers start the trip in Moscow. They either have a journey all the way to Vladivostok or stop somewhere in the Middle of Siberia just like what I did. Some others take the train from Moscow and continue the journey towards Ulaanbaatar (capital of Mongolia) or even Beijing, China.

Visa

For most of North American and European citizens, you are going to need a visa to travel to Russia. If you want to know more about the Russian visa policy, click here . For more information about the Russian visa process, click here . Furthermore, you may want to start your trip or end it in China and in this case, you will have to pass through Mongolia so you might end up needing a visa for these two countries in addition to the visa to Russia. click here to find more information about Chinese visa policy and here to find more information about Mongolian visa policy.

Tickets

I highly recommend you buy your tickets from the official Russian Railway site as this will save you a lot of money. To access the English language page of the official Russian Railway site, click here. Some international travellers prefer to buy tickets from agencies such as Russian Railways as it’s slightly easier to do so but they will be charged more than the official Russian Railways website.

Russian trains have 3 classes: ะกะ’ (Spalny Vagon) is the first class. It’s 2-berth compartment. One Spalny Vagon car accommodates 9 compartments so that’s up to 18 passengers in one train car. Each car has 2 toilets and some new train cars have a shower room for a fee. Second class is known as ะšัƒะฟะต (Kupe). Most of international travellers choose this class for the trip. Each compartment has 4 beds. Each train car accommodates 9 compartments so there will be up to 36 passengers in one train car. The third class is known as ะŸะปะฐั†ะบะฐั€ั‚ะฝั‹ะน (Platskartny): It accommodates 54 beds in one car in an open space. It’s the cheapest way to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and probably the most adventurer way to travel but definitely not the most comfortable.

My beautiful 1st class compartment

If you are going to have your trip in the summer and you are planning to get 1st class tickets, you must buy tickets months in advance as 1st class tickets usually sell out quickly. About the cost of tickets, it depends on type of train and on the fare you are getting but as an estimate, expect to pay around 130 USD for a first class ticket for every 24 hours you spend on the train. For example, if you are planning a journey from Moscow to Novosibirsk, that’s about 46 hours train journey and the cost of ticket will be around 260 USD. For second and third class tickets, cost is significantly lower (around 1/4 the price of 1st class ticket). When you buy tickets, you buy separate tickets from one city to another so that you can make stops and enjoy Siberian cities. Some people buy 1 ticket from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok but I personally don’t recommend that as you will be spending 7 days on the train and you will miss the chance to explore other cities.

Summer in Siberia can be surprisingly hot and trains can be overcrowded with travellers so I recommend that you avoid peak summer months. I would say, May, early June, end of August or September are good months to do this trip. I did mine in early September and the weather was fantastic.

What to pack

Most of Russians who travel on train for days bring their own food and drinks. I recommend that you do the same! There is a restaurant on the train but food there isn’t always great and it can even be expensive. I recommend that you pack some food such as instant noodles, instant mashed potato, pastries, sandwiches, bread, coffee powder, fruits, vegetables, tea bags, etc. There is a hot water boiler “Samovar” in every train car which you can use as much as you want. One of the most important traditions of Russian train is sharing; Russian people are hospitable and they will share their food with you and you should at least offer them some of what you have.

You also need to pack some books; bring some Russian literature books for Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy as reading that in the middle of Siberia will bring you a lot of joy. Download some movies and series as you may not have wifi all the time. Get some card or board games. I also recommend that you bring body wet wipes especially if you are planning to spend more than 1 night on the train as you may not have an access to shower. There’s a large space to store you luggage inside the compartment so you shouldn’t worry about that.

The train conductor “Provodnitsa” will give you a warm welcome (but that depends on her mood) and will bring you a clean mattress, cover, and a pillow case. A train ticket usually includes one meal even if the trip is for multiple days, you will still get 1 meal only and you will have to pay for anything extra. Provodnitsa should be your best friend on the train and let me tell you a secret, Provodnitsas love chocolate so get her a bar of good quality chocolate as a thank you and she will take an extra care of you. It also helps if you speak some Russian as most of them don’t speak any English.

Moscow – Where it all started

I arrived in Moscow from St. Petersburg with a high-speed train. I spent 2 nights in Moscow where I met my friends, visited some sites, and prepared myself for the big trip. I stayed in Izmailovo Hotel which is the largest hotel in the world that was built for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. I had a nice stay there and spent a great time with my Russian friends. I was happy to be in Moscow but I was even more excited about the upcoming Trans-Siberian train trip.

Boarding the great train

At the day of departure, I was full of excitement about the trip. I had to board the train from Kazansky station. I checked out from the hotel and headed to the station where my train leaves.

There are 9 railway stations in Moscow and it’s interesting how they are named . For example, if your train is heading to/arriving from Minsk, Belarus then train departs/arrives from/in Belorussky station. Trains to Kiev, Ukraine depart/arrive from/in Kievsky station and so on. Trains to Siberia usually depart from Yaroslavsky station. However, since my train was heading to Kazan first, I had to board the train from Kazansky station in Moscow.

To board the train, you simply need to head to the platform, go to your train car as per your ticket, show your passport to the Provodnitsa who will check your registration and allow you to get inside the train. I was so delighted when I entered my compartment, it’s a place that’s going to be home for 26 hours. I expected to share the compartment with another passenger but no one showed up so I had the whole compartment for myself until I reached Yekaterinburg.

The compartment is very comfortable and even spacious! There are hangers inside the compartment, a large storage space, TV that I never used, a power socket, a food basket and amenity kit. In addition to these amenities, each traveller gets a clean pack of mattress, bed cover, pillows, and towels.

I felt happy like a kid when the train started to move. A few minutes later, the Provodnitsa entered my compartment to take my order for dinner. 20 minutes later, my dinner was being served. The Provodnitsa was very cheerful and friendly but sadly, I only knew a few phrases in Russian so wasn’t able to have a long conversation with her. It helps a lot if you know some Russian as people on the train are always willing to have interesting conversations with travellers.

After finishing my average meal, and since I didn’t have anyone in my compartment, I needed to socialize with people so I went to the dining car, ordered a drink and a few minutes later, I met some cool people from the Netherlands and Russia. I had a crazy evening with these guys and then I realized that myself, 2 Dutch girls and 1 cool Russian guy will all stop in Yekaterinburg so the Russian guy offered to show us around the city of Yekaterinburg, which is his hometown.

After spending a nice evening with the new friends, I returned back to my compartment and spent the first night on the train. I had a good sleep and I woke up at around 5.00 am . When I woke up, we were already making a 30 minutes stop in Kazan. I had no energy to get out of the train so I decided to stay in my bed. One of the things I regretted after having this trip is not having a stop in Kazan. I guess it was a mistake and I hope that I will be able to visit Kazan in the future. I slept again for 1 more hour then woke up and had my morning coffee and some pastries for breakfast. At around 10 am, we arrived in Agryz, a small town in the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia. The train made a 15 minutes stop there so it was an opportunity to get out of the train and walk around a bit. I noticed the name of the town written in both Russian and Tatar languages. Also, people started to look different as there were more people with darker skin and Tatar features and less Slavic looking than in Moscow so I realized that I am getting really far away from Moscow. After the short stop, I boarded the train again, read a chapter, listened to some folk Russian music and then went to the dining car to meet my new friends and made plans to meet in Yekaterinburg next day.

Two hours before arriving in Yekaterinburg, the train made a 28 minutes stop in a village called Druzhinino. The village was more than 2 hours away from any big city so I was amazed of the tranquility and peace there. The air smelled so good, weather was perfect and the sun was about to set. Being in the centre of all that brought a real happiness to my heart. Anyhow, I returned back to the train and in 2 hours, we arrived in Yekaterinburg where I spent 2 nights.

Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals

I arrived in Yekaterinburg around 8.20 pm. It is the 4th largest city in Russia and it hosted some football matches in 2018 FIFA World Cup. I arrived there after spending 26 hours on the train and after crossing 2 time zones. The distance I travelled from Moscow so far is 1,816 Kilometres.

Yekaterinburg is a beautiful city located East of Ural Mountains, the city is the gateway to Siberia but its residents like to be called “Urals” rather than “Siberians” so I realized that 26 hours on the train from Moscow still didn’t get me to Siberia yet.

I spent 2 beautiful nights in the city; visited the church of all saints where Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia and his family along with members of the household were murdered by the Bolsheviks. I also met my new friends there, visited some nice parks and cafes and had delicious Russian pancakes. I also visited the roof top of Vysotsky skyscraper where I had an amazing view of the city.

After spending 48 hours in the city, the time has come to go back to the train station and to get ready for a new train ride to Krasnoyarsk. The train ride was for 35 hours.

A train to Krasnoyarsk, the heart of Siberia

I was waiting for my train at the platform, my train had arrived and this time I am boarding it with confidence as I became familiar with Russian train rituals so I was sure I wasn’t looking like a fool who was exploring everything on the train for the first time. The train left the platform at 21.42 pm. I also booked a first class ticket for this route and once again, no one showed up in my compartment. I probably felt good about it as I needed to rest. I read something and then converted my seat into a comfortable bed.

Next morning, I woke up at around 6 am and realized that I am finally in Siberia. At 6.41, we had a 15 minutes stop in Siberian town called Ishim. It was my first time to step a foot on a Siberian soil so I got myself outside the train and walked along the platform enjoying the fresh morning air. A few minutes later, I returned back to the train, had my morning coffee along with a breakfast I already packed.

In Ishim, Siberia

Travelling in “Spalny Vagon” or simply first class is very comfortable and the positive side of it is that you get a lot of space and a lot of time to yourself but the negative side of it could be the lack of interaction with other travellers. One of the greatest things about the Trans-Siberian train trip is the experience you have with the different kinds of people you meet on the train. There is a better chance to meet people when you travel in the 2nd or 3rd class than in the 1st class. However, it was my first time on the train so wanted to try the comfort of the 1st class and I guess that it was a good choice.

At 11.04, we made a stop for 16 minutes in Omsk which is one of the largest cities in Siberia. Arriving in Omsk means that we have already crossed 3 time zones and we travelled for 2,676 Kilometres from Moscow.

I returned back to my compartment and I got myself busy with a bunch of things; was watching the massive Siberian land through the window, reading, texting with friends, and even napping! I was waiting for the next long stop which will be in Novosibirsk, the 3rd largest Russian city and the beating heart of Siberia.

Exactly on time, at 19.52, the great Trans-Siberian train arrived in Novosibirsk. The stop was for 51 minutes so it was a good opportunity to wonder around the station, to make photos, and to buy some food. When the train approached the platform, some locals were standing by the platform selling different kinds of fresh food and souvenirs. I got myself some pastries and potato stew for dinner. I wasn’t going to visit Novosibirsk now but decided to make a stop there on the way back (I flew from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk and spent 2 nights there).

Novosibirsk Train Station

I returned back to my compartment to find out that I will have a company for the next 12 hours, my compartment neighbour was a middle age Russian man. First thing he did right after saying Hello was sharing a pack of chips with me. Russian people are generally hospitable and they can become very friendly once they get to know you more. His English was limited and my Russian was terrible but we still managed to communicate. Later in the evening I went to the dining car hoping to meet some people to socialize with; I met 2 Russian women in their late 30s, had a nice chat with them and then returned back to my compartment and decided to sleep. I was excited about my next stop next morning, which is, Krasnoyarsk.

Krasnoyarsk

The train arrived in Krasnoyarsk at 8.53 am. I said to myself “Now I can say that I am deep inside Siberia”. Arriving in Krasnoyarsk means that I travelled for 4,065 Kilometres from Moscow and crossed 4 time zones. The city is the 3rd largest in Siberia and its cultural centre. I had only 30 hours to spend in Krasnoyarsk and that was probably another mistake as the city definitely worth spending more time. I ordered a taxi from the station to my hotel, checked-in and had to get some sleep on a real bed after spending 2 nights on the train. Later in the afternoon, I was so excited to meet a great friend of mine who lives there and who showed me around some beautiful spots in the city.

In Siberia, you will see many right-hand drive cars imported from Japan. When I saw a car like this for the first time, I thought there is something completely wrong and I was wondering how would a right-hand drive car drives on the wrong side of the road than what they were designed for. A few minutes later, I started to see more and more right-hand drive cars. A bit later, after meeting my friend, we went to my friend’s car and to my surprise, her car was also one of these! I was in disbelief and even said “How are you able to drive such a car here?” and her cold Siberian response to that was “Easy, you just get used to it”.

We drove the car uphill to a gorgeous spot where the beautiful Paraskeva Pyatnitsa chapel is located. This chapel is one of the symbols of Krasnoyarsk and it decorates the 10 Russian Ruble banknote. We entered the chapel; my friend picked up a scarf, covered her hair and prayed (women must cover their hair when they enter an Orthodox church). I was standing there, watching, and thought of “how similar religions are”.

Paraskeva Pyatnitsa decorates the 10 Rubles note

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit other important sites in Krasnoyarsk such as Stolby Forest Reserve, which is located outside the city. I promised myself to do that next time.

Next day, I was heading to the train station to take my last train ride of this trip and this time to Irkutsk, which is 17 hours away by train from Krasnoyarsk. I was picked up by a deaf taxi driver who was extremely friendly, he asked me where I am from (by typing on google translator) and I managed to tell him that I am Canadian. He was so excited when he read that and then he explained to me that he loves Hockey so I showed him images from my phone of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team and of some legendary Russian players who played in NHL. He was so delighted and I was glad that I met such a genuine person.

The last train ride

My last train ride which was from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk was about to start. I entered my compartment and I found a man in his 50s surrounded by a massive amount of books and food sitting there! I later realized that he boarded the train in Moscow and he’s going to Khabarovsk which is 6 nights away from Moscow. Therefore, he’s been on the train for 3 days! I greeted him and then unpacked and made myself comfortable. He was hanging a Marine suit so I realized that he’s in Russian Navy. A few minutes later, he wanted to start a conversation but we struggled to communicate because of language barrier and then later he told me that he served in East Germany before the fall of Berlin wall and that he speaks German. I speak some German too so we ended up communicating in German!

It was my last night on the train so I went to the dining car to celebrate that; met some travellers from Germany who were heading to Vladivostok without making any stop (it’s 7 days on the train from Moscow to Vladivostok). I am glad I made stops in some Siberian cities as there’s a lot to explore in Siberia. Just before midnight, the train made a stop in a Siberian town called Nizhneudins. The German guys wanted to go outside for a smoke so I joined them. I returned back to the compartment and went to bed as I needed to wake up very early next day.

I woke up at 6.45 am, I was supposed to arrive in Irkutsk at 7.43 am so I changed, had my morning coffee and prepared myself to bid a farewell to this great train.

The train arrived in Irkutsk, my epic train trip is over! Travelled for 5,153 Kilometres and crossed 5 time zones across Russia, the largest country in the world. I admit that if I regret something, it would be not continuing this trip either to Vladivostok or to Mongolia or China. My last stop was Irkutsk and I made a stop there to see the lake Baikal which is the largest fresh water lake in the world.

I had a weird feeling when I realized that my train trip is finally over and that everything I will see and do from now on will not involve any Russian train ride. However, the trip isn’t over yet as I still have 2 days to explore Irkutsk and lake Baikal and then I’ll be flying to Novosibirsk, which was my last stop in Siberia.

After travelling for 5,153 Kilometres

Irkutsk

Irkutsk is a mid size city in Siberia (600,000 inhabitants) and it has a nickname of “Paris of Siberia”. The city is a gateway to the nearby Lake Baikal but it also has a lot to offer. In the 19th century, many Russian artists and nobles were sent to exile to Siberia for revolting against Tsar Nicholas I and many of them ended up in Irkutsk so the city became centre of intellectual, art and social life.

In my first day, I went out to explore the city. The following day, I took a bus from Irkutsk bus station to Listvyanka on lake Baikal. Trip took around 1.5 hours each way.

Irkutsk is a nice city and just like other places in Siberia, I found people there incredibly hospitable and genuine. In Irkutsk you will see more and more Buryat looking people who mainly live in the neighbouring Buryat Republic but many of them reside in Irkutsk as it’s not far away from their homeland in Buryat Republic. Seeing them made me realize how multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Russia is, It’s just incredible.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world. It contains more fresh water than The Great Lakes combined, imagine? It is also the deepest and the oldest lake in the world. It is the sacred sea of Siberia and one of the most gorgeous natural sites in the world. In the winter, the surface of the lake freezes for 4-5 months. I loved being there in the end of the summer (I was there in September) but I wish to ice skate on the surface of the lake someday.

I had a day trip to Listvyanka which is a town on lake Baikal and had the opportunity to hike along the lake. Listvyanka is only 1 hour away by bus from Irkutsk main bus station. It’s a nice town and there you can find traditional shops selling local products and souvenirs such as Omul dried fish, wooden products, or even fur! The lake is one of the most gorgeous sites I’ve ever seen in my whole life and there are numerous activities you can do when you are there. Sadly, because I didn’t have enough time, I couldn’t arrange for a trip to Olkhon Island. It’s one of the things that I truly regret not doing and I really hope that I will have the opportunity to be there again so that I visit that stunning looking island.

Listvyanka is a nice area if you want to explore the Baikal lake for the first time but if you want to be in a remote location and isolated from the rest of the world and to experience a real tranquility then I believe that visiting Olkhon Island is a must.

After spending a great day at the lake, I said to myself that I should have dedicated more time for the lake as there are some gorgeous sites to explore along the lake such as the island or Circum-Baikal Railway which is historical train ride which runs across the Northern shore of the lake.

What a gorgeous lake!

I returned back to the beautiful city of Irkutsk in the evening and had a delicious dinner there. It was my last night in Irkutsk but I was excited about another trip I will be having next day; I was going to fly to Novosibirsk with Russian S7 airlines. I was looking forward to seeing a new Siberian city.

In the early morning, I headed to Irkutsk airport and boarded my flight to Novosibirsk. I flew with S7 airlines and the flight was generally comfortable and on time.

Novosibirsk – My last stop in Siberia

I passed by Novosibirsk when I was travelling on the train from Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk. I didn’t want to miss the chance to check out Siberia’s capital and most populous city so I decided to visit the city on the way back.

I landed in Novosibirsk, rushed to my small hotel, had a rest and then went out to explore the city. Novosibirsk is a large city; it is the largest in Siberia and the 3rd largest in Russia. However, the city has this relaxing big city vibe. The city is full of museums , monuments, boutique stores, shopping malls and some really good cafe and restaurants. The quality of food, drinks, and service I had there was comparable to Moscow and St. Petersburg. I only spent 48 hours in Novosibirsk but was enough to get a very positive impression about the city.

I was invited to have dinner with a group of people who live in Akademgorodok. It is located 30 Kilometres away from Novosibirsk and was built in the 1950s as a mecca for academics. It’s a beautiful town and is worth a visit if you are in Novosibirsk.

After spending 2 days in Novosibirsk, my time in Siberia had come to an end so I was getting ready to leave Russia to a new country, Kyrgyzstan. It was only 2.5 hours flight from Novosibirsk to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan and I flew with the same S7 Airlines.

Summary

Trans-Siberian train trip is more than just a railway trip.

It’s about diving into the deep Russian soul, it’s about discovering the mysterious Russian land, it’s about uncovering the real beauty of the largest nation on earth, it’s about the genuine people you meet on the way, it’s about train traditions, it’s about the majestic scenery , it’s about the powerful trains, it’s about the interesting provodnitsas…

And more and more and more…

It is certainly the best trip I have ever had and certainly a wonderful learning experience. You will meet genuine and interesting people and you will learn about a beautiful culture which was behind an iron curtain for long decades.

This trip is ideal if you want to get out of your comfort zone and explore places which not many people had the chance to visit. It’s not the most comfortable trip as train rides can be too long sometimes but it is definitely worth it. I am writing this blog now and feeling nostalgic about the time I had on the train and in Siberia hoping that I will get the chance to do this trip again.

About the cost of the trip, as I mentioned above, a rough estimate of a seat in a 1st class cabin (Spalny Vagon) is around 130 USD for every 24 hours you spend on the train. Remember that cost depends on the fare and the type of the train. It would cost you 30% of that if you travel in 2nd or 3rd class. Since I am quite familiar with Russian trains now, I believe I will travel in 2nd class if I want to travel across Siberia again as it’s significantly cost effective.

Cost of food, accommodation and transportation in Siberian cities is significantly less than Moscow and St. Petersburg but it’s not always cheap and still not cheaper than some countries I visited such as Ukraine, Georgia, or Belarus. Quality of food is generally good and service is alright.

Don’t expect to hear any English in Siberia. The deeper you get inside Siberia, the less English people you will hear. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from doing this epic train trip. Just learn to read Cyrillic Alphabets and learn some Russian phrases and you will be fine. I managed to get by with my limited Russian and you can always find a local person who speaks English.

The train is very comfortable and clean. Toilets were always kept clean but that can vary from one train to another. In my experience, everything was clean and tidy.

Train is always on time, which is really impressive! It’s amazing to see a train crosses more than 9000 Kilometres that always arrives on time and leaves on time.

Finally, I regret that I didn’t travel on the train for even further than Irkutsk; I should have visited the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryat Republic which is a Buddhist republic in Russia or to go all the way to Vladivostok, a charming Russian city on the Pacific. I regret not planning that but I hope to be able to do it next time.

That’s all I can say about my Trans-Siberian railway trip for now. Please comment if you have any questions and I will be more than happy to answer.

Thank you for reading!

Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine; an underrated European city!! ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

About Kyiv

Before you start reading this blog, let me clarify something, after an extensive research, looks like Ukrainian government and most of Ukrainian people prefer to spell the name of their city as “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev”. I personally know that Kiev is the commonly accepted English language spelling of it and I’ve been using “Kiev” spelling for all of my life but I read in different sources that Ukrainians prefer to spell it as “Kyiv”. Therefore, I will use the spelling “Kyiv” in this blog.

Kyiv is the capital and the most populous city of Ukraine. It is a large city with about 2.8 million inhabitants making it the 6th most populous city in Europe. Kyiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe (it was founded 1500 years ago) and played a vital role in the development of the Eastern Slavic civilization as well as in today’s Ukraine.

Kyiv is a beautiful, cosmopolitan, and modern city. However, the city still has a Soviet legacy. Many landmarks from the Soviet era are still visible in Kyiv to this day. I found this an interesting and beautiful mix. Kyiv is truly one of the most underrated European capitals and definitely a hidden gem.

I have a serious interest in Former USSR countries so Kyiv was on my radar for a very long time. Luckily, I had the opportunity to visit the city in August 2018. In this blog, I will be sharing with you my impressions about this beautiful city and some tips and recommendations.

Landing in Kyiv

I flew with Qatar Airways. I missed my connection flight but Qatar Airways compensated me by booking me a nice hotel room even though the next flight to Kyiv was less than 8 hours later. I also got a voucher for an open buffet meal and a transportation from the airport to the hotel and back. The flight was really good and comfortable. Service on Qatar Airways is one of the best in aviation industry so I really enjoyed my flight. Hamad International airport in Doha is one of the best airports in the world. I can’t recommend Qatar Airways highly enough.

It’s fairly easy to reach Kyiv as most of major European and Middle Eastern Airlines in addition to low-cost carriers fly to Kyiv on daily basis. For train lovers, there is a night train that is operated by Austrian Railways; it departs daily from Vienna to kyiv via Budapest. The total journey from Vienna to Kyiv takes 23 hours 39 minutes. Another train option is a night train operated by Ukrainian railways from Warsaw to Kyiv and journey takes 15 hours 55 minutes.

The passport control experience in Kyiv airport was like a breeze; very quick, friendly and welcoming. My intuition quickly told me that I am going to enjoy this country.

There are two airports in Kyiv; Boryspil and Zhulyany airports. Boryspil is the bigger airport and is located outside the city. It’s about 30-40 minutes minutes in the taxi from Boryspil airport to Kyiv city centre. Zhylyany airport is much smaller and located in the south-west corner of the city. There are different options to reach the city centre from Boryspil airport such as Taxi (Uber or Yandex), train, or bus. I was in a hurry as it was about 9.00 pm and I wanted to reach the centre as quickly as possible so that I make a use of my evening so I got myself a local simcard with data plan and ordered Uber taxi to my Airbnb apartment. Taxi ride costed me around 10 USD. I arrived at my Airbnb place, dropped my luggage, had a quick shower, and then went out to have my 1st meal in Kiev in a lovely restaurant called “Balkon”.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)

Maidan Nezalezhnosti is Kyiv’s main square and has been known under many different names and often simply called as Maidan or (Square). Maidan was the centre of many revolutions in Ukraine especially the 2014 Ukrainian revolution where clashes with riot police became violent and more than 100 people lost their lives during the revolution. There are memorials of the heavenly hundred people who lost their lives in the Maidan around the square.

Independence Square (Maidan)

The Golden Gate of Kyiv

The Golden Gate of Kiev is a very interesting site; it was the main gate of fortification of Kiev, the capital of Kievan Rus in the 11th century. The structure was rebuilt completely by the Soviets authorities in 1982 after it was dismantled in the Middle Ages. The gate is located right outside Zoloti Vorota metro station. The area around the gate has a beautiful street market where vendors sell flowers and fruits. Furthermore, there are plenty of great restaurants and cafes in the area. I stopped at a Lebanese restaurant in the area called Mon Cher, had a tasty lunch there.

Golden Gate of Kyiv

State Aviation Museum

State Aviation Museum in Kyiv is a real paradise for aviation lovers, especially those interested in Soviet built aircraft. I am an aviation lover myself and I have a serious interest in Soviet planes so I was dreaming about visiting this place for a very long time. In this great outdoor museum, you will have the opportunity to see different models of Soviet commercial and military aircraft such as Tupolev, Antonov, Ilyushin, Sukhoi and more.

The museum is located next to Zhulyany airport. It’s a large museum so expect to spend at least 3 hours to check out the aircraft there. This museum provides a rare opportunity to see and even to get inside Soviet commercial and military planes.

my favourite Soviet aircraft is Tupolev TU-154; it’s the master of Soviet sky!! Click here to watch an interesting video about this legendary aircraft.

Aviation Paradise
With the Tupolev TU-154 – The Master of the Soviet Sky

Podil Neighbourhood

Podil is a historical neighborhood in Kyiv and one of the oldest in the city and the birthplace of the city’s trade and industry. It’s a lively area and full of different landmarks. I particularly liked the Ferris Wheel there. Speaking of Ferris Wheels, people in former Soviet Union countries are obsessed with them, you will find a large Ferris Wheels in every major former Soviet Union city and sometimes in smaller towns. Good example is the famous Ferris Wheel in Pripyat (the city that was serving the nearby Chernobyl nuclear reactor).

Arsenalna – Deepest metro station in the world

Arsenalna metro station in Kyiv is 105.5 metres below the surface making it the deepest metro station in the world. At one time, it had the longest escalator in the world (Moscow built a longer one in 2003). It takes about 5 minutes or so in the escalator to reach the trains platform.

The Olympic Stadium (Olimpiyskiy)

There is only one thing in this world that I am more passionate about more than travelling, which is, football (soccer). I am a big football lover; it is the air I breath and it is something I can’t live without. Any football lover must visit the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv as the stadium was the venue of many big international events; it hosted some football matches in 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and it also hosted the Euro 2012 final (Spain vs Italy) and the Final match of 2018 UEFA Champions League (Real Madrid vs Liverpool). It’s the home stadium of Dynamo Kiev, one of the most successful football teams in Ukraine and in the whole Soviet Union. Dynamo Kyiv won the Soviet Union League 13 times (record) and the Ukrainian League 15 time (record), European Cup Winners’ Cup twice, and UEFA Super Cup once.

Museum of Ukrainian history in the 2nd World War

The museum of Ukrainian history in the 2nd world war is a memorial complex located in the southern outskirts of Pechersk district in Kyiv. The museum is situated on a hill overlooking Dnipro river. To reach this great museum, you can either take a short metro ride to Dnipro station and then walk for 30 minutes along the river bank. It’s a nice walk across the river but can be a little bit too long. The easier way to reach the museum is with Uber or Yandex taxi, it’s about 10 minutes from centre of Kyiv by car.

The biggest landmark in the museum is the Motherland statue. It is a huge statue; its height is 62 metres (203 ft) upon the main museum building with overall structure height 102 meters (335 ft) including its base and weighing 560 tonnes. It is an astonishing structure and can be seen from a very far distance. The statue was built in 1981.

Food in Kyiv

Food scene in Kyiv is really interesting! As I stated above, Kyiv is becoming a modern European cosmopolitan city so expect to see different restaurants, bars and coffee shops offering food and drinks from around the world. On top of that, local Ukrainian food is interesting and delicious. I tried different dishes; Ukrainian food, Georgian Food, Middle Eastern, and Turkish food and everything I had tasted great. My favourite Ukrainian dish is Chicken Kiev, for sure! My favourite dessert is Oreshki! Value for money in Ukraine is great so expect to pay there much less than you do in Western Europe or North America.

Leaving Kyiv to St. Petersburg via Minsk

Unfortunately, there are no direct flights between Ukraine and Russia. Therefore, if you want to have a Former USSR itinerary, then you need to fly from Kyiv to any Russian city such as Moscow or St. Petersburg through a third city; the best options are Minsk with Belavia Airlines or Riga with Baltic Airlines. I flew with Belarusian Belavia Airlines and I really loved the flight. I wanted to fly with their Soviet built plane Tupolev TU-154 but sadly, they retired that plane and instead, I flew with a beautiful Canadian jet Bombardier CRJ200ER. I highly recommend Belavia, it’s one of my favourite regional airlines.

Summary

I love Kyiv; it’s a large and modern city and it’s a place where I would like to explore more. It’s a city I can live in for some time. Actually, I thought about spending a few months there to learn Russian language as I don’t need any visa if I want to stay for 3 months in Ukraine (while I will need that in Russia and Belarus). Ukrainian people are friendly and outgoing but because it’s a large city, you have to be a bit careful sometimes. Especially, if you decide to go to a club at night. I am not a clubbing person so I didn’t have any issue but I heard about some incidents there. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from visiting Kyiv.

There is a military conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Most governments around the world advise their citizens not to travel to conflict zone so there’s no reason to go there for the ordinary traveller. However, the situation in Kyiv is completely stable and daily life isn’t significantly affected by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Avoid talking about politics when you are there as there is a conflict in the country and you don’t want to express an opinion that might be offensive to a certain group of people so my advice is to avoid discussing politics with people there unless you are doing that with a close friend or with someone you trust.

About the best time to visit, I had my trip in August. It was a bit hot and humid when I was there and that can be a great weather for many people. As for me, I probably prefer a temperature around 20 degrees so probably a visit in April, May or September would be ideal. I still enjoyed Kyiv a lot despite the summer heat. Temperature reached 35 degrees when I was there. Yet, it was a lot of fun.

Just like other former USSR cities (except Moscow maybe), value for money in Kyiv and in all Ukraine in general is excellent so you can enjoy a great quality of food, drinks and services for much less than you pay in Western Europe, North America, Middle East or East Asia.

There are many great churches in Kyiv which I didn’t get the chance to visit; St. Sophia Cathedral, St. Michael’s golden Domed Monastery, St. Andrews Church, and St. Nicolas Cathedral. I am ashamed of myself that I didn’t visit any church in Kyiv but I had some other priorities there and I will make sure I visit them (the churches) in my next visit.

Finally, there’s a very popular tour which many adventurers around the world dream about doing; it’s the Chernobyl tour! I personally wanted to do it but I wasn’t mentally ready for such an experience so I skipped it. I still want to do it in the future. Click here to find more information about an excellent tour agency that organizes tours to Chernobyl

That’s all I can share about Kyiv for now. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog. Please comment if you have any questions. Stay tuned for more stories.

Brest, the Home City to a Hero Fortress in Belarus ๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡พ

Brest is a home of a Hero Fortress

Hero City is a Soviet honorary title awarded for outstanding heroism during the 2nd World War II. It was awarded to twelve cities of the Soviet Union. In addition, the Brest Fortress was awarded an equivalent title of Hero Fortress. This symbolic distinction for a city corresponds to the individual distinction Hero of the Soviet Union.

Brest is a relatively small size city in Belarus at the border of Poland; it’s a very interesting city with a long and complex history and with a significant historical importance. In the last few years, the government of Belarus introduced a new simplified process to visit Brest and Grodna regions for 15 days visa free. For more information about the visa free access of Brest and Grodna regions, click the link here

I visited Brest, Belarus for a weekend in the last week of February 2020 and in this blog, I will share with you my impressions of the city.

How to get there

For most of travellers, they can get to Brest by rail from Poland (which is what I did). It’s about 4 hours train ride from Warsaw to Brest. The journey includes 2 stops at the Polish-Belarusian border. However, although entering Brest and Grodna regions is visa free for most travellers but there is a document you need to fill online, print it out and bring it with you to the train. The whole process of filling the document and paying fees takes less than 5 minutes as you only need to fill passport information and select arrival and departure dates. The system will calculate the cost of visa which includes obligatory medical insurance, a ticket to a museum in Brest and a taxi voucher. The whole thing costed me around 12 Euros and I think it’s a good deal as it includes a museum ticket and a taxi voucher. Click here to apply for the visa free document.

There is another way to visit Brest which is to land in Minsk airport and then to take a train from Minsk to Brest. Train journey takes around 3 hours and there are many trains serving this route everyday.

Train experience from Warsaw to Brest

I couldn’t buy the train ticket from the Polish railway website so I had to go to the central station in Warsaw to buy a return ticket to Brest from there. I recommend buying the ticket a few days before the trip as this train can get full easily. There are 3 trains everyday from Warsaw to Brest. Train ticket costed me around 37 USD (return). 1st leg was in 2nd class and 2nd leg with 1st class. I mentioned in a previous blog that I didn’t find a big difference between 1st and 2nd class seats in regular Polish non high-speed trains; 1st class seats are inside a compartment while 2nd class passengers sit in a 2-2 seat configuration. There was a power socket in my 2nd class seat so it was perfect and comfortable. It was probably too crowded but it wasn’t a real issue for me. In fact, there was a Babushka (Grandmother) sitting next to me and she was trying to have a conversation with me. Sadly, my Russian is very bad but I managed to say a few phrases but she kept on talking and I couldn’t understand anything. I tried to tell her that I don’t understand Russian but she probably didn’t believe me. Anyway, it was a funny experience.

The train ride took about 4 hours and involved 2 border stops; 1st stop was at Terespol which is on the Polish side of the border. Polish passport control officers boarded the train, checked passports, stamped them on the spot. The stop at the Polish side took around 45 minutes. A few minutes later, there was a stop at the Belarusian side where Belarusian officers boarded the train, collected all passports and a few minutes later, they returned them back. The stop at the Belarusian side was much shorter. In Belarus, they usually give you that sharp look and they really compare your facial patterns with the passport photo and thoroughly check your passport. However, I must say that they were generally nice and professional. They asked me if I have alcohol or cigarettes and they also asked me if I have cash. You need to bring some money with you just in case as passport control officers sometimes ask to show a proof of funds.

Arrival to Brest

The train station has a beautiful building that was reconstructed in 1957 (it was originally built in 1886). I had to walk from the station to my Airbnb apartment as my internet connection didn’t work and I couldn’t order a taxi. and since the apartment was a short walk from the station, I decided to walk and that was an opportunity to see the city. The apartment is located in Lenin street, which is a central area of the city and right opposite to Lenin statue. Although the Soviet Union was dissolved about 30 years ago but I noticed that Belarusian people have a peaceful tie with their past as many statues and symbols from the communism era are still there. It was a cool surprise for me to see Lenin’s statue there so had to stop there for a few minutes to take photos.

Lenin statue in Brest, Belarus

I arrived at my beautiful Airbnb space and met my host who is friendly, hospitable and very interesting! The apartment was spacious and spotless clean and I immediately felt comfortable about being there.

Sovetskaya Street & City Centre

Right after I checked-in, I went out to explore the city centre so I immediately followed my host’s advice and went to check out Sovetskaya street which is full of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. It is the busiest street in Brest and it’s truly full of life. You should check out the lamplighter lighting the charming looking oil lamps before dark. Later that day, I found a nice Italian cafe called Pompeii where I had my first coffee in Brest and my first Italian pasta. Taste was much better than I expected and it was a great value for money considering the quality of food and service.

Brest’s centre is completely walk-able, there is no need to take any taxi or public transportation if you want to move from one point to another in the centre unless it’s rainy or too cold. Later in the evening, I visited the coolest restaurant in Brest, it’s called “U Ozera”. It looks like a traditional Belarusian house with beautiful interior, traditional local food and very good service. I wasn’t too hungry so I had some light dishes along with Belarusian pickles. Russian speaking people (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians , etc…) are obsessed with pickles, they literally pickle everything!

Brest Fortress

As you can tell from the title of this blog, Brest fortress is the major highlight of this trip. It was awarded a title of Hero Fortress for the defence of the frontier stronghold during the first weeks of the Nazi army invasion of the Soviet Union.

The 2nd world war is known as “The Great Patriotic War” in the Former USSR countries. It is the greatest war ever fought in their history; Former Soviet Union lost about 27 million people who bravely fought to defend their existence. The war had a significant impact on these countries and there are beautifully built victory monuments and memorials all over Former Soviet Union nations and this memorial complex which I visited in Brest is no exception. I felt a very strong energy when I was at that site and I was emotionally touched by the fact of how people there are still very loyal to those who sacrificed so much and lost their lives defending their motherland; I saw fresh flowers everywhere at the monument which is such a beautiful gesture.

I recommend watching the Belarusian/Russian movie “Fortress of War” before heading there. It’s available on YouTube with English subtitles.

Eternal Flame
Thirst Memorial
Brest Fortress Monument Complex

After seeing the monument, I went to see the actual fortress which was awarded the title “Hero Fortress” for its brave resistance in the war. I was impressed to see it in real life as 6 months earlier, I saw a miniature of it in a museum in Minsk.

Later on, I checked out the fortress museum, I already had a ticket as it was part of the visa document. The museum is nice and worth a visit. I highly recommend visiting this site, it’s a must-do in Brest, without any doubt.

More Belarusian food

Belarusian cuisine is quite rich and interesting. I tried many dishes in Minsk which I really liked so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of trying more Belarusian dishes in Brest. I visited a restaurant called Svayki Kharchenya and had a Belarusian dish which consisted of pancakes with chicken and mushroom. Taste was alright. Probably not the best Belarusian food I’ve ever had but it was good enough.

Brest train station and heading back to Warsaw

In my last day, and after having a morning coffee in cafe Strudel in Sovetskaya street, I left the apartment to the train station. I had time to kill so decided to have my last Belarusian meal. I was looking for a restaurant inside the train station and there was a great surprise! I found a Soviet style restaurant inside the train station and that’s exactly what I was looking for! It was a wonderful surprise. I had lunch there; ordered a salad and a chicken dish and a bottle of water and the whole thing costed me less than 4 USD, imagine? Taste was really good but salad was drowned in Mayonnaise but I was not surprised as I know that these Soviet style salads are always like that. Always expect to see massive amount of mayonnaise when you get any Soviet style salad in a Russian speaking country, it’s another thing Russian speaking people are obsessed with ๐Ÿ™‚ . It was a delicious lunch, nevertheless.

Summary

Brest is a beautiful city in Belarus. It is a home of a hero fortress and a very important city in history. If you have any interest in history or in Former USSR culture, Brest can be a very interesting destination for you. You can add Brest to your Belarus itinerary along with Minsk and maybe 1 or 2 more cities.

Belarusian people are generally extremely polite and respectful; that was my impression when I visited Minsk and I experienced the same thing in this trip to Brest. The city is very safe so you shouldn’t worry about getting scammed or being in a trouble unless you go for it. The city is generally quiet especially in winter months but I was told that it gets very busy and active during summer time.

About the best time to visit, I believe it’s between May and September as summer months are the warmest and sunniest, obviously. I was there end of February, it was cloudy but it wasn’t that cold so I guess I was lucky with the weather as it’s usually much colder than what I experienced during my visit.

Brest is a city in Belarus so don’t expect everyone to speak fluent English but number of English speaking people is growing and I didn’t find any problem while communicating with people there. I recommend that you learn some phrases in Russian before you head there or at least, learn to read Cyrillic alphabets, it will make your life much easier.

The value for money in Brest is great. You can get high quality food and drinks for fractions of what you pay for in Western countries.

I will list down recommended places for food and coffee which I tried myself:

Restaurants
-Pompeii Restaurant; Good Italian restaurant in Sovetskaya Street.
-U Ozera; Traditional Belarusian restaurant in the centre
-Svayki Kharchenya; Tradition Belarusian restaurant in the centre (good but not great)
-Restoran Vokzala (Soviet style restaurant inside the train station, it’s excellent)

Coffee shop
-Paragraph Coffee; a really cool coffee shop in Sovetskaya street
-Shtrudel’ ; a cool coffee shop also located in Sovetsakaya street
-Gran Caffe; a nice place but not as good as Paragraph and Shtrudel’

Pubs
-Kafe Bufet; I visited this place on a Saturday night and it was fine (not fantastic but also not too bad)

Extra place to visit: Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park; it’s about an hour away by car from Brest city centre and it’s a gorgeous national park, one of the best in Europe and probably in the world. I’ve never been there myself but heard a lot about it.

That’s all I can say about Brest for now. Please let me know if you have questions or comments.

Back to Warsaw

Gdansk, a Polish Jewel on the Baltics! ๐Ÿ‡ต๐Ÿ‡ฑ

About Gdansk

I visited Gdansk end of February, 2020 and spent 3 days there. In this blog, I will share with you my impressions about the city. Gdansk is a charming city on the Baltic sea located in Northern Poland. It is the 4th largest city in Poland and definitely one of the most magical and most charming cities not only in Poland but also in all Northern Europe. The city centre is compact and can be fully discovered on foot.

In addition to the beauty of the city, Gdansk has a historical importance as its a strategic and influential port city for thousands of years. Furthermore, The Second World War started when Nazi army invaded Poland from Westerplatte peninsula at the outskirt of Gdansk.

How to get there

I arrived there by a train which I boarded in Berlin and the whole trip took a bit less than 6 hours. There is another convenient way to get to Gdansk which is flying there; major European Airlines such as LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa and KLM fly to Gdansk in addition to low-cost carriers such as Ryan Air and Wizz Air. Therefore, there are plenty of options to get there. Also, you can take a very modern and comfortable high speed train from Warsaw to Gdansk and the journey takes less than 3 hours.

About my train ride to Gdansk, I booked a ticket from Berlin to Gdansk in first class for 37 Euros (43 USD). I booked the ticket online 3 weeks in advance from the German Railway site Deutsche Bahn. Click here to view the site. The price difference between 1st and 2nd class was less than 8 Euros so I got the 1st class ticket. In my opinion, the difference between 1st and 2nd class on this train was not a major one at all. 1st class passengers sit in a 6 seats compartment where each seat has a power port. While 2nd class passengers sit in 2-2 open space configuration. There was no dining car on the train and I wasn’t able to buy any food or drinks anywhere on the train. I didn’t know that beforehand so I starved a bit during the trip.

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Gdansk’s charming city centre

Gdansk is a beautiful city and the whole city centre is walkable; it’s exactly a 15 minutes walk from the main train station to the old town square. The city is full of gorgeous looking buildings in harmonic colours. I stayed there for 3 nights and I think it was about right to enjoy Gdansk. However, if you are planning to discover the metropolitan area of Tri-city (Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia), then you will probably need a few more days. Gdansk is part of the Tri-city metropolitan area which also consists of Sopot and Gdynia; a light-rail ride (it’s called SKM) from Gdansk to Sopot takes around 15 to 20 minutes and it’s 10 minutes more from Sopot to Gdynia.

Westerplatte; it is where 2nd world war started

Westerplatte is where Nazi army invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939 and is famous of the battle of Westerplatte where the first clash between Nazi and Polish forces took place. It is where the World War II started at the European front.

Westerplatte is a must see site if you are in Gdansk. There is a great monument there that is definitely worth a visit. It’s a place where everybody can learn a lot from and I am so grateful that we have a peaceful Europe today hoping that the whole world will live in peace and without wars someday. I know that it’s not a realistic wish but let’s wish to have this someday.

To get there, you can either take the bus number 106 from central station and it takes about 36 minutes and then you need to walk for 10 more minutes to reach the monument or you can simply order an Uber. I was in a hurry so I took an Uber ride and it costed me 25 Polish Zloty (6.5 USD) each way. Ride took exactly 15 minutes.

Westerplatte monument

The museum of Second World War in Gdansk

In my second day, I met my great Polish friend who is my good friend since 2013. We started the day in the Museum of second world war in Gdansk which is a must do there. I personally can’t imagine a trip to Gdansk without visiting this museum. It’s great to learn a lot about the history of the war from Polish perspectives. The museum is absolutely massive, very informative and has many exhibits. We spent a couple of hours there. A ticket to museum costs around 6 USD and I recommend that you dedicate 2 to 3 hours for your museum tour.

Sopot

Gdansk is part of the Tri-City metropolitan area which also includes Gdynia and Sopot. Before the trip, I had no plans to visit Sopot as I thought that I will barely have enough time to see everything I wanted to see in Gdansk. However, my friend suggested to show me the beach area in Sopot so we drove there. We had a walk on Sopot pier which is the longest wooden pier in Europe. It is a magnificent beach and the walk on the pier is just breath-taking. The weather was acceptable as it was much warmer than the average weather in this time of the year. We even managed to enjoy some sunshine, which is rare in Northern Poland. I heard from my frined that Sopot area gets incredibly crowded in summer time as it becomes a hot spot for Polish and European vacationers.

The walk on pier was beautiful and at the end of it, there is a very nice restaurant called Meridian Molo. We made a stop there and had a delicious apple pie.

The dark blue water of Baltic Sea
Baltic Sea
Delicious Polish Apple Pie

Back to Gdansk charming city centre

We drove back to Gdansk and had a walk in the historical city centre where I had another chance to enjoy the colours of the charming looking buildings there. It is truly one of the most gorgeous town centres I have ever seen. On top of that, there are many great restaurants, cafes and bars there and the ones I tried were excellent.

To conclude the beautiful day, I had to try the famous Polish Pierogi and Polish winter tea in a nice restaurant in Gdansk called Kaszubska Marina. It was the best Pierogis I’ve ever had.

More colours
A trip to Poland is not a trip to Poland without eating Pierogi

Leaving Gdansk to Warsaw

After 3 great days in Gdansk, I left the city to Warsaw with the high-speed Pendolino train. High speed rail service in Poland started in 2014. The train was modern and clean and the service was great. I booked a ticket in advance so I was able to find a 1st class ticket from Gdansk to Warsaw for 30 USD. I recommend buying a ticket in advance as you can almost always find a good deal when you do so. Journey took a bit less than 3 hours. You can buy a ticket directly from the Polish railway website. Click here

Once I boarded a train, an attendant approached me and distributed a little menu. You will be able to choose from a list of cold sandwiches and 2 drinks. The food tasted really good. Also, the seat is very comfortable, adjustable, wide, large legroom, has a power port and a hook to hang your coat. Furthermore, the train has a restaurant car, in case you want to have more food. It was one of the best train rides I’ve ever had.

Summary

Gdansk is a cute city, it is a Polish jewel on the Baltic and it can definitely be a European weekend gateway. Also, you can add it to your North/East Europe itinerary if you are touring that part of Europe. Along with Krakow, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Poland and you can really find beauty and peace in this city. Furthermore, from what I heard, nightlife in Gdansk can be really cool and interesting but this is something I couldn’t check out myself.

I will list below recommended places for coffee, food, and drinks which I tried myself:
Restaurants:
-Restauracja Gvara; not many dishes on the menu but it’s delicious. Service is very friendly and professional. It can be a bit expensive for Poland.
-SurfBurger; seriously good burger place
-Meridian Molo (In Sopot); a bit expensive for Poland but worth it
-Kaszubska Marina; I had great Pierogi there
-Czerwony Piec; delicious casual Italian pizza place in Gdynia.
Coffee shops:
-Mล‚ynek Cafe; cute coffee place with great coffee and friendly service
-Ciekawa Kawiarnia; you have to go there as they employ disabled people and that proved that they have a great potential. Taste of coffee and cake there is amazing. undefined
Bars
-Pub Red Light: don’t worry, it’s not what you think, it’s just a name ๐Ÿ™‚ . They make good cocktails there!

I stayed in a beautiful, sunny and spacious Airbnb apartment right at the old town. Location couldn’t be any better and the apartment was perfect. Once again, make sure you read the reviews carefully and check amenities before you book your Airbnb place.

I guess that’s all I can say about Gdansk for now. If you have any thoughts, questions or comments, please let me know.

Minsk, the Capital of the Mysterious Country of Belarus ๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡พ

About Belarus

Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe; boarded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Minsk is the capital and most populous city. 40% of Belarus’ area is forest. Belarus declared its Independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union was dissolved. Prior to that, Belarus was part of the Soviet Union and was known as Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. During WWII, Belarus lost about quarter of its population and half of its economic resources.

Why Minsk?

I have a serious interest in former Soviet Union countries; I visited many of them and found a deep connection with their culture. They are exotic and mysterious as they were behind iron curtain for many years but they recently started to open up and show the world a lot of their inner beauty. In the last few years, I am glad that I discovered so many fascinating things about a culture which I didn’t know much about in the past.

Belarusian people have their own national culture but they also have a lot in common with their Russian and Ukrainian brothers; they were living in the same country/empire for many years so they have a common history, traditions, habits and they all communicate using Russian language. Belarus was the 9th former USSR country I visited (I have visited 2 more former USSR countries later after this trip) and I truly found the city of Minsk interesting and worth visiting.

Minsk is a very clean and organized city. In fact, it’s one of world’s cleanest cities. People I met and interacted with in Minsk were extremely polite, considerate and respectful. Minsk is a very affordable city to visit and a very safe city to travel to.

Belarus is generally a country that is out of comfort zone of an ordinary traveller so expect to put some extra effort to get there and to understand how things work there. It is still a developed and modern nation though but there are a few things there which are slightly different and you need to have such expectations before you head there.

Entry Requirements

In the past, holders of EU and North American passports needed a visa to enter Belarus and they had to apply for an expensive visa in advance. Thankfully, the procedure has become a bit simplified as citizens of these countries don’t need to apply for a visa in advance to visit Belarus anymore. However, the only way to get a 30 days visa free travel to Belarus is to land and leave from Minsk International airport providing that visitors don’t fly from or to Russia. For more information about the visa free entry to Belarus, click here.

Approaching Minsk National Airport

I flew from Dusseldorf, Germany through Warsaw, Poland with Polish Lot Airlines. Once I landed, and before proceeding to passport control window, I had to buy an mandatory health insurance. When I bought it, I only needed to declare number of days I am planning to spend in Belarus, they did the calculation for me and then paid using a credit card (you can pay by cash). The approximate cost of the mandatory health insurance was around 1 Euro per day.

After collecting the medical insurance, I simply headed to passport control window. Expect the passport control officer to examine your passport thoroughly and to ask you some questions. My officer was friendly and he smiled when I said Hello in Russian language. He reminded me that I need to be registered if I am willing to stay in the country for more than 5 days. If you are staying in a hotel, the hotel will perform the registration for you so you don’t have to worry about it. If you are staying in an Airbnb apartment, the landlord must do it for you but some landlords aren’t familiar with the process so if you are staying in Belarus for more than 5 days, make sure to inform your landlord about it before you book your apartment. Furthermore, I believe that there’s a way to register online so you don’t need the landlord for that but check the government site for registration and double check. Anyhow, for more information about registration, click here .

Planning a trip to Minsk isn’t complicated yet it’s not a very simple process, especially if you are not used to all the visa and registration hassle. However, in my opinion, this shouldn’t stop you from visiting this great country. It is still worth it to visit Belarus.

Best time to visit

Without any doubt, it’s the summer! I visited Minsk in June, 2019 and the weather was incredibly perfect. It was a bit hot though (Temperature was above 30 degrees) but that was definitely better than below zero temperature in the winter. Minsk is still not as touristic as many other European cities so even visiting it in the summer doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be packed with tourists.

Getting to the city centre

If you land in Minsk airport (I assume you will land in Minsk airport unless you already have a Belarusian visa or you enjoy a visa free entry to Belarus), you will need about 45 minutes to reach the city centre by taxi and that would cost you around 15 USD. I recommend using Yandex taxi app, it’s very reliable and affordable. Minsk airport is located a bit outside the city so it’s not a short ride to the city centre. There is a cheaper way to get to the city centre which is bus (there is a bus every half an hour) and it costs around 2 USD and journey takes about an hour. You can buy a ticket from a kiosk; English language option is available and it accepts credit cards. Speaking of credit cards, I visited Belarus 3 times (twice in Minsk and once in Brest) and never needed to use any cash as credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, even at the metro, you just tap your credit card at the gate and that’s it.

Museum Strana Mini (Miniatures)

I had dinner in a great Georgian restaurant right after I have landed and next morning, the first place I wanted to visit in Minsk was this awesome miniatures museum. I booked a guided tour with a knowledgeable and friendly guide. I learned so many things about the country during my visit. The museum has more than 20 miniatures of major attractions in Belarus and that visit to the museum encouraged me to learn more about the history of other cities such as Brest which I visited later in February 2020. Museum ticket costs around 6.7 USD and a guided tour is for about 4 USD extra. It was worth it and I highly recommend it.

Belarusian state museum of the history of the great patriotic war

This museum is not only a must visit if you are in Minsk but it’s also one of the best WWII museums I have ever seen in my entire life. As I mentioned above, Belarus lost quarter of its population in the 2nd World War and the entire Soviet Union lost nearly 27 Million people. That’s one of the reasons why former USSR countries call it “The Great Patriotic War”. There are endless stories about that war, not only in Belarus but in all countries which were affected by it. The building is impressive and it’s one of the very few buildings where I spotted a Soviet flag still waving on top of it. I believe that the nation of Belarus has a peace and consolation with its Soviet past and of course, they will never ever forget those who lost their lives while defending their motherland. I admire such great values and I have a huge respect towards it.

There is a lot to talk about when it comes to history and war. Therefore, I will just leave you with the photos below:

Outside the great patriotic war museum, one of the best WW2 museums I’ve ever seen
Beautiful culture…

Minsk Botanical Garden

I wasn’t planning to visit Minsk Botanical Garden but my beloved friend recommended it so we ended up going there and it was a great idea! Countless number of exotic plants and flowers from all over the world and the place is very quiet and peaceful! It was a little bit hot that day and I admit that I was complaining about the heat a bit but we still enjoyed it a lot. It was a very beautiful day. Once again, a photo can say a thousand of words:

National Library

National Library of Belarus is an “interesting” looking building that was built in 2006. Some people find it “ugly” but I guess I like the design. Unfortunately, I realized that I didn’t take any photo of the building from outside but if you want to see how it looks like, simply click here.

The view of Minsk suburbs from the observation deck on top of the building is beautiful and worth seeing. There’s also a little cafe next to the observation deck where we had a delicious dessert and Belarusian bottled ice tea (it was tasty). This huge library is less than 8 minutes walk from Uschod subway station.

Borisov Arena

During my stay in Minsk, there was a football game in the European Championship qualifying between Belarus vs Northern Ireland. It was an opportunity for me to visit a charming looking arena and was also a chance to board the Belarusian train and to be somewhere outside the city. Borisov Arena is the home stadium of Belarusian team BATE Borisov; they played in Champions League several times and they even managed to blow a huge surprise once by beating FC Bayern Munich 3:1. It’s an interesting looking arena and it was a cool game to watch. Belarus lost the game 0:1. Trip from Minsk central station to Borisov takes around an hour.

Food in Minsk

Food in Minsk was a great surprise! Prior to my visit, I had no clue about Belarusian cuisine; I only knew that Belarusian people are obsessed with potatoes. Well, that turned out to be true but there are also many other tasty and interesting dishes. On top of that, Belarusian people are incredibly friendly so expect to be well fed if someone invites you to their home and expect to gain some weight too ๐Ÿ™‚

I tried many dishes and they were all delicious but if you are in Minsk, you must try Draniki (potato pancakes). I got addicted to pancakes and was having them everyday for breakfast.

Extra thing to do

I visited Minsk again in the winter and had the opportunity to spend a day in a spa called Riviera. It was one of the most relaxing days in my whole life. There are more than 12 different types of Saunas there; Finnish, Russian, Belarusian, Himalayan, etc … in addition to different swimming pools and baths. It is absolutely worth it to spend the entire day there when you are in Minsk. I highly recommend it.

Amazing spa

Summary

Minsk is a great city and is definitely worth visiting for a few days. Remember, it was extremely difficult to travel to Belarus in the past unless you arrange for a visa in advance but that makes it a very exotic destination. It is an ideal destination if you are fed up with other touristic cities in Europe or if you are interested in Soviet history and the culture of Belarus and former USSR.

If you live in Europe, you can fly to Minsk cheaply with AirBaltic or with one of the major European Airlines (Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, Turkish Airlines) in addition to Belavia (Belarusian Airlines – I really like them), or even Ukraine International. If you live in the Middle East, I guess Turkish Airlines is your best bet. If you live in North America, probably Lot Polish Airlines is your best option. Anyhow, click here if you are looking for good deals via Skyscanner.

The city is affordable; public transportation is very cheap (metro ticket costs 0.35 USD) and taxi is also cheap. For a reliable taxi app, use Yandex taxi and avoid hailing for a taxi in the street as you might be charged extra, especially if you don’t speak Russian fluently. I found Minsk affordable but it’s definitely not as cheap as Moldova, Georgia, or even Ukraine and of course, prices in restaurants, cafes, and bars are very high for local people who live and work there.

About language, it’s true that many people don’t speak English there but most of young people do or at least they try their best to communicate with visitors. There are English menus in many restaurants and cafes; most of cafes and restaurants I visited had English menus but not all of them do. It’s a good idea to learn some Russian phrases and to learn how to read Cyrillic alphabets.

The architecture is mainly Soviet as the city was re-built after WWII so expect to see lots of Soviet style apartment buildings and very wide avenues. Yet, it’s very clean, organized, and everything there is functioning very well.

Minsk is a nice city but I admit that it lacks the charm which many capitals in Europe have. It is not a cosy city at all yet it’s a great city to visit that is full of interesting history, good value for money, beautiful nature, spotless clean, safe, and most importantly, it’s full of polite and friendly people.

During my stay, I stayed in an Airbnb apartment. I recommend using Airbnb in Minsk but before you go ahead and book, read the reviews carefully and make sure the place has excellent ratings. Luckily, the apartment I stayed at in Minsk was fantastic.

So book a flight to Minsk now and explore its beauty and mystery before it becomes more touristic and less real.

St. Petersburg in the Winter; A Beautiful Fairy tale! ๐Ÿ‡ท๐Ÿ‡บ

Why did I decide to visit SPb in the winter?

This short blog is about my winter trip to St. Petersburg in February 2018 where I spent 4 days there. Prior to this trip, I visited St. Petersburg in September 2017 for the first time and I instantly fell in love with the city; I got addicted to it so I decided to visit it again in February, 2018.

St. Petersburg is the Russia’s gateway to Europe, the cultural capital of Russia, it is definitely the most beautiful city in Russia and one of the prettiest cities in the world. It is the city of charm; the city of art, the city of beauty, the city of Tsars, and the city of gorgeous architecture. Peter the great built the city in 1703 (no surprise why it carries his name).

It is my favourite city and I can’t get enough of it. Visiting St. Petersburg brought to me a lot of happiness and I have beautiful memories and great friends there. The city will always have a special place in my heart.

Winter Palace in the middle of the Russian winter

This blog is just a short summary of the winter visit to the city. There will be another blog about my summer trip in St. Petersburg where you will be able to view more information about sightseeings, things to do, places to visit, cost, etc…

Visa

The good news is; citizens of a total of 53 countries (including EU citizens) can now apply for eVisa to visit St. Petersrbug and it will be valid for a duration of 8 days to visit SPb and Leningrad region. For more information about visa, click Here.

The bad news is; citizens of Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom are not included in the new e-Visa system. This is terrible and frustrating. Passport holders of these countries have to apply for a visa prior to heading anywhere in Russia, which means, you have to fill an application, get an invitation letter online click here , personal photo, and pay fees. Russian visa is not a complicated visa to get but it can be costly and time consuming. I applied for the visa in VFS Global visa application centre in Toronto; took about 2 weeks and costed me around 100 USD. Note that I have just checked and found out that they no longer process Russian visas anymore. If you want to apply for a Russian visa in Canada, check the Russia visa centre website here

The flight

I was living in Toronto, Canada when I had this trip to St. Petersburg. I needed to visit my parents in Kuwait so I managed to find a great deal on expedia and booked the following itinerary; Toronto – London – St. Petersburg; St. Petersburg – London – Kuwait; Kuwait – London – Toronto.

I must admit that it was hectic but I was very excited about visiting St. Petersburg again. I flew with British Airways; 1st leg from Toronto to London was a very comfortable flight in a brand-new B787 dreamliner but the flight from London to St. Petersburg which took around 3 hours was a bit strange as there was no service during the flight (not even a cup of coffee).

St. Petersburg in a winter night

I arrived at the hotel 5th corner where I spent 4 nights. It’s the same hotel where I stayed in my previous trip to St. Petersburg. It’s very clean, tidy, practical, and in a great location so it was perfect for me. I checked-in and had a quick nap before getting ready to go out. I must admit that it’s challenging to fly from Canada or USA to Europe or Middle East for a few days only as flights are long and jet-lag can easily drive you crazy (I was jet-lagged the whole time in St. Petersburg). However, I decided to focus on one thing only; to utilize the short time I have there to the maximum and to have as much fun as possible as such an opportunity to escape work and to travel doesn’t come very often, especially when I was in Canada.

I got ready to go out to see a very close person to me who lives in St. Petersburg; it was freezing cold, canals were frozen, it was silent, and I even felt more cold because I was exhausted after the long flight. We went to a beautiful area called New Holland which is a historical artificial triangular island dated from the 18th century. There are many nice coffee shops, bars and restaurants there. There is also a beautiful outdoor skating rink during the winter. We ended up having Georgian food and Russian tea.

Catharina’s Palace is a winter fairy tale

I believe I was lucky in this trip as snow was white and pure; there was no dirt or slush and sidewalks were clean and easily accessible. I had no problem roaming around the city in such a weather; the temperature was around -10 but it didn’t feel extremely cold.

I had plans to visit Catharina’s Palace which is located in Pushkin, it’s about 40 minutes drive from the city centre of St. Petersburg. Before heading there, I had a quick yet a delicious breakfast in a Russian bakery.

Fresh and delicious Russian pies

I was visiting Catherina’s Palace for the first time as I didn’t have time to visit it in my previous trip. Catharina’s Palace is the summer residence of Russian Tsars. Although it was a weekday and it was in the middle of the winter, there was a long queue outside the palace. I remember paying something around 10 USD for the ticket. The palace is absolutely gorgeous and the highlight of the trip was the Amber Room which before its loss in WWII, was considered an 8th wonder of the world. The room was reconstructed by Russia and Germany and took about 24 years to finish the reconstruction of it, can you imagine? It’s a marvellous place. Sadly, it’s not allowed to take pictures of Amber Room so I am unable to post any here but if you want to read about it, click here

The area surrounding the palace was all white so it looked like a winter fairy tale and I am so lucky to capture such moments while being there in that time of the year.

After the palace tour, I bought a Russian fur hat (Ushanka) and it worked great in the cold weather.

Winter Palace in the middle of the winter

Winter Palace was the official resident of Russian Tsars 1732 to 1917. Today it is a landmark of the city of St. Petersburg and it houses one of the greatest museums in the world, the Hermitage Museum.

I get a special energy every time I visit this place. However, being there in the winter was a unique experience. It’s that special connection with Russia during winter months as no nation on the planet earth embraces winter the way Russian people do.

When I stood there, I felt the deep connection with the Imperial Russia, with the unique Russian soul and with the turbulent Russian history. So many changes happened here; empires vanished and new leaders came to power. Even the name of the city changed from St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and finally back to its original name St. Petersburg. Locals today simply call it Piter.

It was short and sweet

It was a quick visit to the cultural capital of Russia and my favourite city in the entire world. I was happy to discover another side of the city which is the winter side. The temperature was between -5 and -20 during my stay there so it was cold, even for someone who lived in Canada for many years like me, it still felt cold but with some help of Russian tea, it was bearable and I still managed to enjoy it. The snow was pure and beautiful and the atmosphere was friendly and hospitable and that brought a lot of peace to my heart.

I think it’s not a bad idea to visit St. Petersburg in the winter but it depends what kind of weather will be waiting for you in your visit. In my visit, it was cold but it was clear and sunny so I was able to enjoy the beauty of snow colour. Streets were clean as there was no rain mixed with snow or mud so I didn’t have any problem while walking around. I was walking for at least 4 hours everyday.

St. Petersburg is definitely more affordable than cities in Western Europe or North America but it’s not that cheap. In fact, some restaurants and cafes have exactly same prices as in my city Toronto. However, public transportation and taxis are cheap. You can use a very convenient and reliable taxi App (Yandex) and it deducts from credit card so you don’t have to worry about carrying cash. I recommend staying in Airbnb as I had great experiences staying in apartments there in my next visits. However, in this visit I stayed in a nice hotel and it was perfect.

Russia is a developed country, it actually keeps on impressing me every time I visit it. I saw people paying with their cell phones in Russia before I saw that in Canada!! You rarely need to use any cash in St. Petersburg as cards are accepted everywhere.

I walked on a frozen river, I consumed huge amounts of Russian tea, I met some great people, I discovered more of the deep Russian soul, and I reconnected with my favourite city. It was a short and sweet.

Take a look at the rest of the photos below and …Enjoy ๐Ÿ™‚

What a beauty!
Neva river is completely frozen
Another frozen river
You can even see footsteps on this canal
This trip was really worth it
Good bye St. Petersburg!

Tunisia..The Land of Harissa, Olive oil, and Freedom! ๐Ÿ‡น๐Ÿ‡ณ

The flight

I flew with TunisAir from Casablanca to Tunis and the total duration of the flight was a bit less than 3 hours. It was on time, boarding went relatively smooth, and flight was generally comfortable. However, the plane was a bit old, food was inedible, no in-flight entertainment, and seats were in a bad shape. I didn’t have high expectations about the flight as I already knew that TunisAir is going through a turbulent time. On the other hand, cabin crew were very nice, friendly and professional. When I was offered “tea or coffee”, I answered with “Coffee, please” and said that in Arabic, the flight attendant was curious and asked me in a sweet Tunisian Arabic dialect “Where are you from?”. I always pause for moment when someone asks me this question as it’s always hard for me to give a quick precise answer but at the same time, I don’t want to tell my life story to whoever asks me this question. Therefore, this time it worked out and I managed to give a short answer in one sentence. That’s not the end of the story as my answer opened another interesting conversation. She was extremely warm and welcoming and I immediately realized that this is just the beginning and I am going to meet many friendly and interesting people there in Tunisia.

Arrival in Tunis-Carthage Airport

The plane has landed in Tunis-Carthage airport. Shortly after, I was transferred to the airport terminal by bus. Tunis-Carthage airport is small, old, and very crowded. There was a long queue at the passport control. When it was my turn, I handled over my passport to the passport control officer. “Are you from Kuwait?”, he asked. “No, I am Canadian” , I answered. Let me explain something here; it seems that passport control officers in Arab countries always ask people who have Arab roots but hold a Western citizenship about their country of origin. I was never asked about my country of origin anywhere I travelled to except in Arabic countries, which is interesting. Anyhow, he asked me if I am originally from Kuwait because it’s shown in the passport as my place of birth. I said “No, I am not a Kuwaiti” . He asked me again; “Originally, where are you from?” . I was like “Oh yeah, originally I am Palestinian”. “Ok! You’re welcome here”, he said it in a a firm yet a bit hospitable tone. I was happy to get my passport stamped and to be done with all that. Later, I got a local sim card with data plan, paid about 4.5 USD for 5 GB internet and went to the taxi stand to start negotiating a price for a taxi ride to my airbnb apartment. The negotiation took a few minutes. In the end, I agreed to pay around 9 USD for a taxi ride to Sidi Bou Saรฏd area where my apartment is located. The taxi driver was a cool guy and we immediately started interesting conversations about football, revolution, history, Canada, Europe, Palestinian/Israeli conflict, food, and so many other things.

Right after I arrived in Sidi Bou Saรฏd area
Really delicious Italian pizza in Tunisia

I arrived in my Airbnb place in Sidi Bou Saรฏd. Since I didn’t eat anything on the plane, I was starving. I searched for a place to eat in google maps and found one pizza place nearby with great reviews; I went there and had a tasty and flavourful Italian pizza and once again, the owner asked me the same question which I was asked on the plane in an incredibly friendly and hospitable tone “where are you from?” and answering him started another long conversation. Apparently, Tunisians love it when you tell them “I have Palestinian roots”. It felt great.

Tunis the capital

After Pizza, I needed to go to downtown Tunis (Avenue Habib Bourguiba) to see the capital in the early evening. The ride from Sidi Bou Said to Tunis took around 20 minutes in a taxi and costed about 6 USD. It was a Sunday evening so it wasn’t crazy busy but I was fascinated to be in this historical avenue where thousands of Tunisians protested and eventually celebrated after the dictator Ben Ali has fled the country after weeks of mass protests culminated in a victory for people power over one of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes.

I went to a nice little restaurant/cafe (I was full after the Pizza) so I tried a small dish called Harissa which is basically a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste that Tunisian people are obsessed with. Yes, Harissa is an obsession for Tunisians as they add it to most of their dishes. It is spicy and delicious especially with warm olive oil and when it is dipped in fresh baguette. After a few days, I became addicted to it and I now truly miss it. When I was inside the restaurant, I noticed something and that was my first culture shock; people smoke indoor in Tunisia and no one seems to be bothered about it.

Sidi Bou Saรฏd

Next day, I spent the first half of the day in the stunning Sidi Bou Said; it was a walking distance from my airbnb place. Had a coffee there and walked around to enjoy the beauty of the white and blue houses. The view of Mediterranean from Cafe des Delices is stunningly beautiful. Sidi Bou Said is the Tunisia’s Santorini and I sincerely believe that this place is underrated and it deserves much more social media attention and credit.

What a stunning view of Mediterranean
Beautiful Sidi Bou Said

No trip to Sidi Bou Said is complete without trying the famous Bambalouni (deep fried Tunisian Doughnut) which is fresh, warm, and delicious. I had one as a breakfast and the price I paid for it was less 30 cents (yes, you heard it right). The taste is great but I must admit that it’s very sweet and full of sugar!

Bambolouni is a must in Sidi Bou Said!

Medina of Tunis

Medina de Tunis

In the afternoon, I went to the city centre to explore Medina of Tunis, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Medina is busy, chaotic, colourful, authentic, and charming. It’s an ideal place to explore the deep roots of Tunisian culture and to do some great shopping if you are into that (I am personally not into shopping while travelling as I prefer to travel light).

Apart from shops inside Medina, there is Al-Zaytouna mosque that is located in the centre of Medina; the mosque is famous to host one of the oldest universities in the history of Islam. The mosque was built in the 8th century and the view of the mosque and its minaret from the roof top cafe is really amazing.

Al-Zaytouna Mosque’s Minaret
A roof top cafe in Medina

After an interesting tour in Medina, and after having a cup of Turkish coffee on the roof top cafe, I wanted to try local cuisine so my Tunisian friend recommended a great restaurant in Medina where we had lunch. I had a Tunisian meat Couscous and it was delicious. However, once again, Tunisians are obsessed with Harissa so it was spicy but I like spicy food so the taste was great. There is a photo of the dish below and you can see that it’s full of chili pepper, if you zoom in ๐Ÿ™‚

Tunisian Couscous is delicious and … full of Harissa ๐Ÿ™‚

Medina of Tunis is very authentic and real! It’s true there are many shops to sell tourists over-priced goods but its also full of locals who are there to shop, eat, or spend time with friends and family. It’s a must see spot and I highly recommend checking it out.

Bardo Museum

Staying in Sidi Bou Said area has its pros and cons. The biggest advantage about staying there is being in the central of a charming area with amazing views and relaxed environment but one disadvantage is that it is a bit outside the city. Luckily, Tunisia is a very cheap destination if you are coming from Europe, North America, or the Middle East. Therefore, a 20 minutes taxi ride would cost around 5 USD or so. However, if you are on a super tight budget, you can take the TGM train (ticket costs less than a dollar) note that the train is old and sometimes very crowded but it does the job; journey takes about 40 minutes.

We visited Bardo museum; it is the 2nd largest in Africa in terms of richness of collections after the Egyptian museum. The museum houses a huge number of Roman mosaics; some of the displayed items are gigantic and the amount of details is just incredible. However, I must admit that the museum was a bit tired and not in good shape, which is really sad. As you know, Tunisia went -and still going- through a difficult economical situation after the revolution. I am sure that Tunisia is now on the right track to become the first real democracy in the Arab world and people there are serious about it. Anyway, A ticket to the museum costs around 4 USD.

After the museum tour, we headed to a roof top bar -it’s called Jamaica- and the whole building (it’s a hotel, actually) along with elevators and the bar itself reminded me of the 1980s. It was a weird yet interesting place where I was able to see the main avenue in Tunis (Habib Bourgiba Avenue) from the top of a 12 floors building, wasn’t a bad view at all.

Carthage ruins

Carthage ruins is another UNESCO world heritage and a unique archaeological and cultural site. I don’t exaggerate if I say that Carthage ruins alone can be a great reason to visit Tunisia especially if you have an interest in learning more about Roman history and culture. These Carthage sites are incredible and I spent a good 3 to 4 hours roaming around them. Price of ticket is around 4.3 USD and it gives you an access to 6 archaeological sites. Out of these 6 sites, I visited 4 of them; Baths of Antoninus, Carthage Amphitheatre, Roman Villas, and Punic Port. The first 3 sites are really close to each other so no need to worry about transportation. However, it’s about 30 minutes walk (or 6 minutes by car) from one of these 3 sites to Punic Port. I was exploring sites on my own but an experienced guide -he’s been a guide since 1978- suggested to give me a guided tour for 30 minutes at the Baths of Antoninus; I thought it’s a good idea so decided to go for it and it turned out to be a great idea as the guide was really experienced and knowledgeable; He gave me a comprehensive history lecture about Carthage and I really enjoyed his company. It costed me around 9 USD and it’s something I recommend doing, especially if you are in a group so you can share cost.

La Marsa

Not far away from Carthage ruins, there’s a beautiful coastal town called La Marsa; the view of Mediterranean from there is absolutely stunning. It’s an ideal spot to meditate and think about all the great things I experienced in the trip. I was deeply touched by the great amount of hospitality, generosity, and friendliness that I received from Tunisian people. I deeply connected with many people I met there and I discovered that they have some great values. Also, it’s fascinating how they fought bravely to defeat the dictator and to get their freedom back. When I was at La Marsa beach enjoying the beautiful view of the sea, I memorized the beautiful words of the Tunisian poem which some verses of it are in the Tunisian National Anthem “If, one day people desire to live, destiny must surely respond. And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall”.

La Marsa beach

Back to Sidi Bou Said

You can easily tell that Sidi Bou Said was my favourite spot in this Trip to Tunisia. It’s such a charming underrated town that many of us never heard of. I was able to explore more places in the town during my last day. However, I must admit that I had a hard time by some shop owners when I decided to get some small gifts for friends and family. They were truly pushing too much! Looks like I was there in low season so they didn’t have many other clients so they were desperate to sell me loads of things I didn’t need.

I did my best to visit the places which I planned to see before the trip. There are some other spots which I couldn’t visit due to lack of time and energy. I would definitely do my best to visit them if I get the chance to visit Tunisia again:

-Hammamet (beautiful beaches)
-Djerba Island (arguably the most touristic spot in Tunisia during the summer)
-City of Sousse (beautiful coastal city)
-Kairouan Mosque (one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world)
-Sahara (such a magical place)

How do we heal from the love of Tunisia?

In my last hours there, I thought that there are some great reasons to visit Tunisia; warm sun, beaches, food, history, culture, etc… but there is something that is, in my opinion, more important than any of the above; it’s the warmth and hospitality of Tunisian people. After visiting Tunisia, I realized why Mahmoud Darwish -regarded as the national Palestinian poet- said these beautiful words about Tunisia “How do we heal from the love of Tunisia?”

Summary

Tunisia is a great country to visit; beautiful beaches, charming spots, thousands of years history, sunny destination, affordable, good food and awesome people.

Best time to visit Tunisia? Probably between April to June and September to October. You can still go there in summer months (Djerba Island is very popular in the summer) to enjoy the beach but it might be too hot in some areas such as Sahara or even inside the city. I was there in January and it was alright but I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the beach or to do any water sport.

During my stay, I stayed in a nice airbnb apartment in Sidi Bou Said area, the apartment was neat and clean and served its purpose. There are plenty of other options such as hotels and airbnb apartments and rooms, and hostels. I noticed that hotels have international rates so they can be costly so I decided to go for an airbnb apartment.

Transportation is easy and cheap; you can either hail a taxi or use a taxi App “Bolt”. It’s a convenient app but you still have to use cash to pay the driver. By the way, just like Morocco, you will have to use a lot a of cash in Tunisia as credit cards aren’t widely accepted. Another method of transportation is public transit; there are train stops in Tunis city centre, Sidi Bou Said, Carthage, and La Marsa so it is easy, cheap, and convenient to move around these spots. Also, many Tunisian cities are connected through railway.

Food is good and cheap and portions are huge. I really liked the taste of Harissa but if I have to choose between Moroccan and Tunisian cuisines, I would choose Moroccan! Sorry Tunisian people ๐Ÿ™‚

About getting to Tunisia, if you live in Europe, that should be very easy as there are direct flights from most of major (or even smaller) European cities. In the summer, there are even more charter flights hence more options. If you come from Middle East or Asia, Emirates, EgyptAir and Qatar Airways have daily flights to Tunis. If you come from North America, you will most likely have to fly to Paris, London, or Frankfurt and then change there and then fly to Tunis.

That’s everything I can say about Tunisia for now! I hope you enjoyed reading this and let me know if you have comments or questions.

Stay tuned for more!!

The last cup of coffee

Morocco, What a Colorful Country! ๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

I’ve been dreaming about visiting Morocco for years…

I always wanted to visit Morocco; the idea of visiting a country that is vibrant, exotic, beautiful, warm, hospitable truly fascinated me. I even shared my wish with many people so Morocco was always under my radar until the opportunity arrived in January 2020 and finally, the dream became true. However, I had a very short time to plan for the trip so I ended up filling an 8 days itinerary in a very short time. Luckily, everything worked out according to the plan.

Flew with Aegean Airlines from Kiev with a short transit in Athens, was generally comfortable and on time.

In 8 days, I visited 5 Moroccan cities. I landed in Marrakesh airport; the city of Marrakesh was my first contact with Morocco and what a contact it was! I spent 3 nights in Marrakesh. After that, I visited the cities of Rabat, Tangier, Chefchaouen, and finally Casablanca, where I left Morocco from the airport. I used trains for transportation (except the trip from Tangier to Chefchouen and back) and can’t recommend Moroccan trains enough; they are reliable, clean, affordable, and very comfortable.

TGV style high speed trains in Morocco are reliable and affordable, paid about $20 for a 1st class ticket. Good deal!

I was amazed at the beauty of the country. Morocco is colorful, diverse, and really affordable. The infrastructure in big cities truly exceeded my expectations, especially transportation. Note that I traveled to 5 cities in Morocco so I can’t say much about the entire country. However, the impression I had was generally positive. I didn’t expect it to be that clean, safe, and even modern!

1st stop: Marrakesh

Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh, this place is full of life!
Lamb Tagine in Marrakesh; one of the best meat dishes I’ve ever had

Marrakesh is the most touristic and the most visited city in Morocco and must be there in any Moroccan itinerary. I wanted to combine Marrakesh with Fes but due to lack of time, I had to choose Marrakesh over Fes hoping that I will have the opportunity to visit Fes in the future. I spent 3 nights in Marrakesh and felt that it wasn’t long enough so I would love to come back and visit it again. Marrakesh is a friendly city, Marrakesh is safe, and Marrakesh is much more beautiful than I thought; all buildings are painted in red colour and food is out of this world. I had some best meals in my life when I was in Marrakesh. Getting around in Marrakesh is fairly easy as there are cheap taxis (less than 2 dollars for a city ride) and buses. Take the small taxi (petit taxi) if you are a solo traveller or in a small group. Don’t take the grand taxi if you are 1 or 2 persons as it’s significantly more expensive than the petit taxi.

Marrakesh Train Station
Gorgeous Jardin Majorelle

Places to visit in Marrakesh:
-Jemma el-Fnna square
-Medina Souk
-Koutoubia Mosque
-Bahia Palace (I didn’t visit it due to lack of time)
-Gardin Majorelle
-Yves St. Lauren Museum (combined ticket with Gardin Majorelle)
-Walk around in Gueliz at night
-Marrakesh train station
-Eat in Chez Lamine
-Barometre Marrakesh (you can have cocktails with Moroccan spices)

2nd stop: Rabat

Rabat’s Kasbah of Udayas from outside

Rabat is such a beautiful relaxed city and it was an ideal stop after the crazy Marrakesh. It’s the political capital of Morocco. It is true that Rabat is a quiet city but it’s also very pretty, clean, and organized. I was fortunate to meet a friend there who showed me around (it’s always easier when you are with a local, isn’t it?). I spent only 1 night in Rabat and I guess that it wasn’t enough so maybe I should go back someday.

Beautiful Kasbah in Rabat
I truly liked Rabat

Its worth mentioning that I arrived in Rabat after a 3 and a half hour train ride from Marrakesh. You can check train schedule here . When I was there in Morocco, I was unable to buy a ticket online using my international credit card (only Moroccan cards were accepted). However, it looks like that it’s now possible to buy tickets online using overseas cards. Anyhow, you can easily buy tickets at the station 1 or 2 days or even a few days before departure. I recommend using any of the self-service kiosks as I personally did so and was done in less than 2 minutes. Note that I am not sure if these machines take international credit cards so you might need cash to buy your ticket.

My beautiful and cheap airbnb apartment in Rabat (less than 30USD per night)

3rd stop: Tangier

I arrived in Tangier after spending 1 night in Rabat. The train ride took around 2 hours and the price of the ticket was about 22 USD. I booked a first class ticket simply because the price difference between the 1st and 2nd class tickets wasn’t really significant. Besides, I wanted to experience the 1st class in the new Moroccan high speed train (the fastest train in Africa) and it turned out to be a good decision as it was one of the most comfortable train rides I’ve ever had.

Not a big lover of seafood but I had to try this in Tangier! Was tasty!

Back to Tangier, it’s a coastal city in the North of Morocco and it’s Morocco’s gateway to Europe. From Tangier, you can take a ferry to Spain or many other European countries and many Europeans arrive in Tangier first when they visit Morocco. The city is nice and interesting and seafood is really good there (not a seafood lover but people insisted that I should try seafood there). Also, people are cool and open-minded there, you can feel the international spirit in the city so I generally felt good about being there. I spent 2 night in Tangier. In my first day, I had a great seafood meal in a local restaurant and then had a 25 minuts taxi ride to Cape Spartel, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. I arrived there at sunset so I was lucky to capture the golden hour. The beauty of that spot -Cape Spartel- is difficult to be described by words. Enjoy the photos below.

Magnificent Cape Spartel
Stunning Cape Spartel

Fourth stop: Chefchaouen (the blue city)

Chefchouen or simply (The blue city)

Another reason why I decided to spend 2 nights in Tangier was because I wanted to visit Chefchouen. It’s not very easy to reach Chefchaouen as no trains go there. One way to reach it is by taking a bus from Tangier to Tetouan and then change there and take another bus to Chefchaouen. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded doing that but since I didn’t have time, I needed to find a quicker way to reach there and then come back in the same day. Therefore, for the first time in my trip, I decided to take a tour! I found a reliable tour online with good reviews, registered and paid. Next day, they picked me up and drove me to Chefchoauen; it was a beautiful scenic drive but it was a bit exhausting for the driver as roads are a bit narrow and mountainous and there is a very strict speed limit control. We made a stop in a nice cafe then continued to the blue city.

The driver told me many heart-breaking stories about Andalucian Arabs who were exiled from Spain and first they settled on top of these mountains (Rif mountains)

After about a 3 hours drive, we arrived in the beautiful Chefchoauen. A very nice and friendly guide was waiting for us where we had a tour in the city. I had great conversations with the guide and he even told me that he’s originally from the city of Ouarzazate which is a city in Southern Morocco; it’s the gateway to Sahara desert and one of the most beautiful cities in the country. I will definitely include it in my itinerary when I visit Morocco again. Along with cities of Fes and Essaouira, which I couldn’t visit in this trip.

Town sqaure of Chefchaouen

I am a native Arabic speaker so it was an interesting experience for me to communicate in my mother tongue while traveling as I rarely do that (I rarely travel to Arabic speaking countries). However, I realized that Moroccan Arabic isn’t exactly the same as my Middle Eastern Arabic. In fact, it’s totally different and sometimes it’s impossible to understand it. North Africans (especially Moroccans and Algerians) generally understand the Middle Eastern dialect but unfortunately, we can’t understand much of what they say and therefore, I was lost in translation in multiple occasions that I even asked the guide to shift to English, imagine? Yes, it was that hard. Moroccan Arabic is heavily influenced by Amazigh language and to a lesser extent, by French and Spanish.

Amazigh letters? I guess so…
The instagram spot in the blue city Chefchaouen

After an interesting tour and some great conversations with the guide about history and politics; Palestine, Canada, Europe, Morocco, etc … The cool and friendly tour guide recommended a place for a bite. I checked google maps reviews (like I always do) before heading there and it seemed to be alright so went there and had the best Couscous in the entire Morocco trip. It was delicious and very colorful. After the meal, I walked around in the city again, bought some little souvenirs for friends and family, and went back to the car to drive back to Tangier.

Moroccan Couscous is colourful, delicious, and flavourful

Last stop: Casablanca

Well, many of you heard that Casablanca isn’t the prettiest city in Morocco and it’s probably not a great idea to spend a lot of time there. In fact, some people even truly disliked the city. I think that I can understand this opinion about the city. However, luckily, I still managed to have a good time there but the city is definitely not as charming as other cities I visited in Morocco. It’s the commercial hub of Morocco and a huge city; it’s very busy and crowded and sometimes it can be really stressful to be there. The only gerat landmark in the city -in my opinion- is Hassan II Mosque which is a gigantic mosque set on outcrop jutting over the ocean.

I stayed in this cute airbnb apartment in Casablanca
Hssan II mosque is truly impressive

Summary

I had a great time in Morocco; it was exciting to learn more about a culture of a country which is exotic, beautiful, and mysterious. I can confirm that Morocco is a very safe destination to travel to. It’s also an affordable spot where value for money is really good. Moroccans are generally friendly and hospitable and I had great experiences dealing with them there.

During my stay, I stayed in airbnb apartments. I recommend using Airbnb or traditional Riads. You can also stay in hotels but I guess that hotels there have international prices (a bit expensive for Morocco). I didn’t stay in hotels myself so I can’t say much about it. About hostels, I read there are some great hostels in Moroccan cities with wonderful reviews and of course, very cheap prices. Morocco is an ideal destination for back packers as it’s one of the most affordable countries I’ve ever been to.

Transportation between cities is very easy and convenient using Moroccan trains. They now have high speed trains between Casablanca and Tangier (stops in Rabat). Apart from that, other non high speed trains which I tried between other cities were really good and comfortable.

About food, Moroccan cuisine is delicious but it’s probably not the lightest food in the world (just like any other delicious food). The bread there is really good and tasty and was enjoying that everyday. Something else I liked about Morocco, which is the fresh orange juice, it’s everywhere and it’s very cheap and tasty! You should try it.

About best time to visit Morocco; I think the best time to visit the country would be from mid of March till end of May and then end of September till beginning of November. Some people might disagree with me but I heard that Morocco can be really hot and incredibly crowded in the summer. I was there in January so it was a tiny bit cold (I’m Canadian so as long as it’s above zero then I am fine) but I guess it was alright as it was always sunny and beautiful.

You will need a lot cash as credit cards are not used everywhere, be prepared to that.

Finally, if you fly in or out of Casablanca, be ready for some delays as there are numerous security checks so make sure to arrive in the airport ahead of time. My passport was checked in Casablanca airport more than 5 times and there were long queues everywhere. Even my luggage were checked thoroughly, more than in any other airport I’ve been to so that can be a pain sometimes but I was there ahead of time so it went fine.

That’s all about Morocco for now. It’s my first long blog and I hope you enjoy reading it!

Stay tuned for more!

Traveling to Germany and Poland soon…

Germany & Poland trip

I will spend a few days in Germany and Poland end of February so will be visiting Frankfurt, Berlin, Gdansk, and Warsaw. I visited Germany numerous times before but it’s been ages since the last time I visited Berlin, probably more than 8 or 9 years ago. About Poland, I’ve never been to Gdansk and Warsaw before so I’m very excited about the trip. I visited Poland as a country before though and spent a few days in Krakow.

Finally, launching a travel blog!

It is happening! I forced myself to go ahead and launch this travel blog hoping to encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone and explore the world.

Stay tuned!

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